Bright Blue is October’s True Color in Leadville
An Ode to Helen Hunt Jackson: By Kathy Bedell, © Leadville Today
Maybe it’s because the sky seems even bluer in October. Is it the contrast of the fresh snow or changing leaves that make the heavens appear more brilliant blue? Or maybe the words to this poem haunt me because the 20th century author visited Leadville on several occasions. Could the Magic City have been the inspiration for her poem?
There’s nothing cooler about living in Leadville than when you experience the genuine historic connection. The Tabors, the Unsinkable Molly Brown, Doc Holliday, Texas Jack, the list of notables goes on and on. We read their stories and realize that their lives happened in the same building or the house down the street. It connects us with the past in a way that a page from a history book cannot.
That’s what the poem “October’s Bright Blue Weather” does. It’s hard to believe that its author, Helen Hunt Jackson is often recognized as America’s most prolific woman writer, because her work is not well-known. But it should be.
Helen Hunt Jackson (HHJ) came west to Colorado in the late 1870s for health reasons. Her earlier East Coast life was filled with pain and suffering after the tragic deaths of her two sons and first husband, all within a three-year period. Jackson was a well-liked, published author who counted literary giant Emily Dickinson among her many friends.
Her most famous work dealt with the government’s mistreatment of Native Americans. In her book, “A Century of Dishonor,” Jackson outlined a trail of broken treaties, which eventually led to the demise of many tribes as they were pushed out of their native lands.
Her second, more popular book about the Indian plight was told in “Ramona,” a romantic factual novel, which brought the government’s inhumane dealings with Native Americans to the forefront of the public, even capturing the attention of the U.S. Congress.
Jackson also penned poetry and prose, which was published in several well-read East Coast journals. Her creations put Colorado’s natural beauty in such good light that her work was credited for luring many West. Jackson’s book, “Bits of Travel at Home,” was about her wanderings through old mining towns, including Georgetown, Central City, and yes, Leadville.
Jackson’s most documented Cloud City visit happened in 1879. She came up to see her friend Mary Hallock Foote, a noted, but neglected Western writer. While this Victorian gentlewoman who traveled in hoop skirts and petticoats, never received critical acclaim for her illustrations and stories, her feminine experience in the American West which documented in Wallace Stegner’s “Angle of Repose,” which did win the Pulitzer Prize for the novel.
Now here’s where the story gets interesting. The Footes lived in a small, one-room cabin on W. 8th Street, so when Helen Hunt Jackson came to call, I’m sure she was a bit miffed by having to wait on the front porch while her friend changed for dinner. There was no parlor or sitting room. It’s during this wait on that front porch that I’d like to think that she turned south and saw the view. That magnificent view of Colorado’s two highest peaks with the rest of the Sawatch Range trailing off to the south. Everytime I see that view this time of year I think of Jackson’s poem “October’s Bright Blue Weather?”
That night same night it’s recorded by Jackson, the foursome went to dinner at the Clarendon Hotel, in the present day location of Kum-n-Go on Harrison Ave. The roar of the crowd proved to be too much for the only two women present in the restaurant at the time, and Jackson’s lasting comment to the famous artist was direct: get out while you can!
“She warned us,” Foote would relay later, “that we could not stay; the place was too unnatural. Grass would not grow there and cats could not live.”
That wasn’t Jackson’s first visit to Lake County. Two years earlier, she and her husband came up from their home in Colorado Springs to spend time at a Twin Lakes lodging establishment. Her description of the area should be read with a pride in stewardship, as it still rings true today.
“Marvelous, lovely twins. Ten thousand feet above the sea and thousands of miles away from it. The soft waves lapped on the shore with a sound as gentle as the sigh of pines, and the water was clear as crystal 60 feet down.”
Ironically, during this sojourn, Jackson discovered that the insulation used in their room contained a page from an East Coast journal that contained one of her poems! Perhaps it was this trip to Twin Lakes that inspired “October’s Bright Blue Weather. “
The truth is it was probably neither. Jackson’s visits to the Leadville area always came in the summer – go figure! But her descriptions of the area are unmatched. And whatever her inspiration for this seasonal verse, I’m thankful we still get to experience those crisp, clear, cloudless October days in the ‘Ville.